Witi Ihimaera

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Witi Ihimaera

Witi Ihimaera, author of ‘Whale Rider’ and many other books talks to Suraya Dewing.



1. How do you get your inspiration?

I have been grabbing my inspiration from everywhere ever since I decided I would be a writer. I've been collecting it from my life, my family and, lately, from New Zealand history. Do you know the concept behind Apple's "cloud"? Well, I like to think that there's something called "Witi's cloud" up there and, when I need to, I download the idea that best suits the project I'm working on, to my iPad.


2. What is your writing routine?

There's a heap of planning and thinking that goes on before I even get to the iPad, and that happens in "Witi's cloud" too. It will often take months. But once I sense that its filled up to the brim and spilling over, I write like crazy to keep up. If its summer, I start from 8-10, then go for a swim, 11-2, then have lunch and another swim, 3-6, then swim and have a salad dinner or ring up friends and ask them to put me on a lead and take me out to a restaurant. When I get back home, I look at what I've done, finalise it, and I don't look at it again. You have to keep on going forward, trying not to backtrack, regardless of quality. You can always fix things when you have achieved mass to play with in the second draft.


3. Are there places or people you draw inspiration from? Who? What?

It’s the idea and subject matter that draws the inspiration. Before you know it there's a whole world or universe clustering around the book and attaching to it, coming from the huge inventory of your life and experiences: what you've read, heard, seen, done. In my latest novel, "The Parihaka Woman" the inspiration for the book came from among others my mother (the story of the faithful wife, Erenora), the story of the Government attack on Parihaka (a visit as a schoolboy to Parihaka), Beethoven's opera Fidelio, Dumas' novel The Prisoner in the Iron Mask, historical sources, interviews with local informants and so on.


4. Are there topics you particularly like to write about?

So far my topics have been primarily within New Zealand and to do with Maori life and culture and, latterly, the relationship of Maori and Pakeha through history. So far.


5. Why did you choose the genre you have as your specialist area?

The genre I am working in at the moment is historical fiction. My two most recent novels in this genre are "The Trowenna Sea" and "The Parihaka Woman", and there's a novella in my latest book, "The Thrill of Falling" which continues to explore the writing of history from a Maori perspective. This is not as easy as it sounds because the Maori point of view does not always appear in the documents. So you have to look through them to the people and stories that have been invisibilised and are waiting on the other side to be told. Telling the Maori stories and their histories is why I have chosen this genre... at the moment.


6. Do you ever suffer from writers block? What do you do to overcome it?


If I had it, I would have to write through it, exercising the muscles and stretching until I was able to achieve flexibility and strength to get the words working on my iPad.


7. Your advice: Techniques for writing well

Well, this all depends not on what you do well but what you don't do well. For instance, I don't think I do characters and relationships very well at all. I do story and narrative, they're my trumps, but I really have to work on techniques and strategies so that my characters work well and crunch on one another. Irony is another thing I'm not good at. So early in my career I developed for myself a personal checklist of what every story or chapter should have and once I have completed the first draft I go back chapter by chapter, or story by story and check off whether or not those things appear. I guess you could call this an App, one of a range of Applications which I have developed and which are up there in "Witi's cloud". So in this particular App are the procedures by which I can respond to technical questions like "Is the first sentence a hook from the last chapter's last sentence?", "Is there a mini-arc within the chapter?", "Is there tension?", "Where's the moral ambiguity?" and so on. Great writers don't need to have Apps like this. I do.


8. Can you offer some tips for a writer starting out?

Always believe in yourself and your work. Rejection is par for the course. Develop good technique, know exactly what technical options are available to you as a writer. The main problematic in writing is not What you are writing but How are you going to achieve it.


9. What are you working on right now?

I'm starting a memoir soon called "Native Son"